Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Reinventing the Wheel Using Contructal Law

Speaking of reinventing the wheel (the omni-wheel), I was recently reading an article by Adrian Bejan, a Distinguished Professor of Mechanical Engineering at Duke University.  In the article he surmises that common wisdom is wrong and nature did indeed invent the wheel, not humans.  As a matter of fact, most early humans failed to recognize the properties of the wheel that were happening with bi-pedal motion.  But, there were a few shining stars, as evidenced by Da Vinci's Vitruvia (or the Homer version shown), who recognized the cyclical motion of legs.  (Based on his article, Adrian insists that the wheel was not copied from nature and is in no way a form of biomimicry.  Instead, it is an artifact "of our own evolutionary design for moving our mass on the landscape.")

Although the article makes a great case regarding the evolutionary design of the wheel, I was more interested in his continued reference to constructal law.

The Constructal Theory

Prof. Bejan has a web Portal for Constructal Theory.  It's not much to look at (at the time of this writing) but buried within the hot pink boxes are loads of information regarding contructal law.

I would love to sum up constructal theory here, but I'm afraid that is just not possible.  The multitude of examples on his website where contructal law can be used is nothing short of astounding: making biology and economics like physics; sports; technology; social interactions; web (SEO) traffic; and many many others.  It is hard to tell if Adrian is an engineer or something else.  To be able to take a single unifying law and apply it to any number of areas of study is something I think theoretical physicists would like to have for the universe.

I urge you to open your mind a take a look at the constructal theory web portal.  As Adrian concludes in the article I read, the best way to describe constructal law is that it unites animate and inanimate design phenomena and therefore allows the study of evolution within our lifetimes, not the eons it takes in nature.  Fascinating.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Wheels. That Rotate. On Wheels.

Every so often you see or read about a technology that is intriguing, if for no other reason than a novelty.  Then, you happen across it again and realize the subtle details of engineering required to make the novelty function.  And then, you see it in action and you realize it deserves more attention than you originally paid.
Image courtesy of Grabcad.
The Omni-Directional Wheel
The omni-directional wheel was first conceived by Swedish engineer Bengt Erland Ilon in 1972.  (SHHHH. Don't tell any Norwegians a Swede invented something first.)  The patent traded hands a few times before the technology finally developed into something product-worthy that first shipped around 2005.  It was a material handling truck (aka forklift or lift truck) called the Sidewinder, produced by Airtrax.
Image from Airtrax website.


At first glance, this wheel looks like it would provide for a very bumpy ride as the load is transferred from roller to roller.  But, as shown in the embedded video, the wheel provides a startling smooth ride. 
The control is a combination of MOSFET, sensor technology, closed-loop feedback, regenerative breaking, speed control, onboard diagnostics, and traction control.  I remember as a tool designer making a moving assembly line with A.N.T's (Adaptable kNeel-down Transporter) that had standard casters on them.  It was very difficult to move that platform through the factory.  What I wouldn't give to be able to redesign that system using wheels and controls from Airtrax.

Most people say that there is no value in reinventing the wheel, but thanks to Bengt and the team at Airtrax, it appears that a reinvented wheel has great potential in the material handling, robotics, and assembly line industries.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Siemens and Local Motors Team Up


It is 8:01am CST.  By now, you have had one minute to digest the press releases from Local Motors and Siemens regarding their cooperation to create a CAD tool suited to the car enthusiast.  I mentioned a bit about it in my last post when I talked about the Open House at Local Motors here in the Phoenix Metro area.  Here are some of the more juicy details.

About Local Motors
Local Motors (LM), under the vision and direction of its CEO and Co-founder Jay Rogers, has the desire to allow the community of car enthusiasts to go a step beyond after market products and do-it-yourself component upgrades to allow them to design their own niche vehicle.  Niche vehicle is the key phrase.  A niche vehicle, to paraphrase Jay, is something that a certain certain group of people want or need in a specific geographic region.  To make that happen, Jay has a vision that allows the community to collaborate, or in LM and Siemens terms to allow cocreation (because cocreate would just be weird to say), a specific vehicle that fulfills the local niche.  For example, people in Arizona would love a desert race vehicle to take out to the Dunes that is street legal so they don't have to trailer a 20 mpg gallon vehicle behind a 16 mpg vehicle just to have a little off-road fun.  Thus, the Rally Fighter was born.  (Although if it had a 4 wheel drive option that I could take rock crawling with my Jeep buddies -- now there's a vehicle I could invest in!)

In order to take LM to the next step, the community needed a design tool that capable of designing and assembling an automobile - from piece part welded tubes and brackets, to body panels, and windshield wipers.  Yet, the tool had to be simple to use and affordable enough for the DIY or enthusiast gear head.  Not only that, but the tool had to be "universal."  In other words, it had to be able to read whatever file format individuals of the community uploaded to the LM website and to be able to manipulate that geometry.  With a remarkable partnership with Siemens, Solid Edge Design 1 was born.

About Siemens
To be honest, Siemens wasn't the only CAD vendor that LM approached to  help them move to the next level in their vision.  As a matter of fact, LM first tried to work out a partnership with Dassault who helped them with the DOD vehicle.  LM approached as many CAD vendors as it could to propose building a tool suitable for its community.  But, as it turns out, Siemens was the only CAD vendor willing to take the chance on such a new and, I'll say it, revolutionary kind of car company.  Behold, Solid Edge Design 1 was born.

Solid Edge Design 1
What's so special about Solid Edge Design 1?  First of all, it's not NX Design 1 which is what most people would think is needed for automotive design.  Second of all, it is a full-enough featured version of Solid Edge Synchronous Technology so any individual can design an automobile: Synchronous Part and Synchronous Assembly.  Just as important, Solid Edge Design 1 is rented monthly for the cost of a dinner at Applebee's through the LM community website.

Finally, there is a robust CAD package that is priced at a range that makes it available to the masses.  Alibre tried it and did a great job, but this is one step further.  No initial high cost outlay.  No yearly maintenance fee.  This is as about as pay-as-you-go as we have ever seen in the CAD world, made available under EULA for every enthusiast out there at an affordable price.

Conclusion (for now)
These are exciting times we live in.  This, in my opinion, truly is a game changer.  On the one hand, we have the maker market exploding who are all trying to find an affordable geometry creation engine in order to continue to make.  Now they have it.  On the other hand, we have a new kind of car company showing the world that it doesn't take a company "too big to fail" to put together a really sweet ride.  I am excited to be in the middle of all of it.  I can't wait to see how the competition reacts to this news.  I can't wait to see how the market reacts.

There is so much more to talk about regarding the details of the cooperation between Siemens and the vision of Local Motors.  It has to be broken up into many posts and I fully intend to cover my opinion of it as much as possible: the new LM website (it's on so many steroids it may even be illegal by MLB) and the growing community for one; the two steps that actually go into sharing design data online: web-based geometry visualization and Solid Edge Design 1 geometry creation; the vision and growth model of LM; just to name a few.  I'm almost speechless from being overwhelmed with the potential of this cooperation.  See now why I said Jay has a really high "smartness level"? 

I know several other people also reporting on this news so keep your eyes and ears sharp.  I'll provide updates and links as time permits.  In the meantime, strap on your seat belts and enjoy the ride.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Local Motors Open House

The Global Product Data Interoperability Summit (GPDIS) keynote speeches finished early yesterday so I had the distinct pleasure of being able to attend the Local Motors open house.  WOW!  What a company and what a car.

If you haven't heard about Local Motors, they are a new kind of car company focused on the car enthusiast.  They believe that there is a better way to design and build an automobile than the ways developed by GM, Toyota, Ford, etc.  The vision this company has is extraordinary and it is led by their CEO and Co-founder, Jay Rogers.  One thing I got out of the Open House is that Jay is one smart fellow.  I created this infographic to illustrate Jay's smartness.
Not only is the leadership of Local Motors in the hands of an incredible visionary, but it is supported by a very dedicated group of a people who are equally enthusiastic about cars and the new way to design a car.  And something that is a sure sign of the success or failure of a new venture, Jay was supported by his wife and children who were in attendance at the Open House.  Jay is getting support from all directions; there is no way this venture can fail.

The purpose of the Open House was to announce a change coming on 11/11/11.  Jay was pretty secretive about the announcement other than it is going to be big and revolutionary.  This is the type of announcement that will shake up the industry much like the announcement of Local Motors designing a car using crowd-sourcing shook up the industry.  But, with a selection of big name Siemens representatives like Mark Burhop, Susan Cinadr, Carlos Beato, and Kurt Pennington (the number 1 Solid Edge demo guy) and the fact that they were demoing Solid Edge during the Open House, I can only speculate that the announcement has something to do with Solid Edge more than a new electric vehicle being developed by the Local Motors community.  As a matter of fact, Jay spoke about how the Local Motors community has grown and now it is time to get more tools into the hands of the community.  I'm guessing he means design or visualization tools.  And in his words, quoted again by Mark Burhop, design tools for the cost of a dinner.  Neither Jay nor Mark would go into details if the cost was a McDonald's dinner, an Applebee's dinner, or a 5-star dinner, but either way that is a price point that will definitely shake up the industry.  Which one? Automotive or CAD?

Local Motors already has two successful vehicles under their belt: the Rally Fighter and the vehicle developed for the DOD.  They are now working towards an electric vehicle.  You can see the Top Gear video of the Rally Fighter here.
http://vimeo.com/27821581

Watch the Local Motors website and the Siemens website for the press releases describing the official announcement.  I know I'm interested in what the big news is going to be.  In the meantime, I get another tour tonight with my local chapters of ASME and NSPE.  Maybe I can coerce Jay into a corner and find out more.

Some interesting links.
http://www.i-newswire.com/siemens-plm-software-and-local/136334
 http://www.plm.automation.siemens.com/en_us/about_us/newsroom/press/press_release.cfm?Component=148327&ComponentTemplate=822
http://technews.tmcnet.com/news/2011/10/27/5888445.htm


Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Crowd-Sourced Engineering

My Dad and his favorite pastimes:
working the earth and being with his grandkids.
My dad would tell you straight off that he wasn't exactly the smartest person in the world.  He had a hard time understanding fractions.  Academically, he may have been right but my dad could find the problem, figure out a solution, and create that solution with nothing more than a utility knife, duct tape, and a plastic milk bottle.  They even made a show about it, it was called MacGyver or something like that.

I learned a lot more about engineering from my dad and being raised in a blue-collar household than any textbook or professor could teach, although my dad repeatedly stated he wasn't smart enough to do what I can do.  None the less, my dad was able to do things I am not able to do and by that, I learned to trust my skilled-labor coworkers when it comes to their opinions about improving a design, fixing a problem, or just making the system better.  But, I also know that if I were to put a blank piece of paper in front of them and tell them to come up with a solution to a specific problem, they wouldn't be able to do it.

So what does this story have to do with crowd-sourced engineering?  Simple, everyone has their strengths and weaknesses.  Some people are great at taking existing objects and making improvements to them.  Other people are great at taking a blank sheet a paper and creating something new.  When you are crowd-sourcing engineering and design, which group is working on your team?

Engineers have a natural affinity towards creating something from nothing.  That's why engineers became engineers.  They hone that ability through extensive education and temper it with experience.  They learn to think outside themselves, to their audience, to potential users, and to consider as many requirements as humanly possible in order to conceive a brand new design that fulfills a need capable of withstanding future unknowns.  My father, on the other hand, could only create something that solved the immediate problem.  He did not have the background or training to learn how to consider factors outside of the obvious.  When you are crowd-sourcing engineering and design, which group is working on your team?

If you are an engineering or design firm and are considering crowd-sourcing your project because you think it will save money, take a second thought on who is on your team.  Is the person on your team someone who is educated and trained to think outside the given problem statement and anticipate future needs or requirements; or is it someone who just has the uncanny ability to solve a specific problem with an eloquent fix?  Is it someone who is capable of developing a solution from concept to reality; or is it someone who will only be able to make incremental improvements to existing ideas?  Is it someone who is able to support the design and determine root causes for any potential issues; or is it someone who will only to able to come up with another band-aid repair that addresses the symptom, not the problem?  Do you have the time and resources to verify all the work your crowd-sourced team has done?  Would that save you anything over having to do it yourself?

I'm trying not to judge whether crowd-sourcing is right or wrong.  Crowd-sourcing has the potential to combine the best strengths of all those who participate.  But, it also has the potential to combine the worst weaknesses as well.  When you are crowd-sourcing engineering and design, do you really know who is working on your team?  Can you take that chance?

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Star Trek Sutures - In the Flesh

NASA may be disappointing generations of people who expected better planning from that organization in terms of continuing to provide a reliable mode of transportation to the International Space Station as well as micro-gravity research, but that doesn't mean they aren't breaking grounds in new ways here on Earth.

The good folks at JSC with the help of a few partners have developed a technique to seal traumatic wounds without the use of needles and thread or even worse, staples.

A biodegradable protein sealant, aka solder, is applied to the wound.  A miniature portable microwave generator and handheld antenna deliver microwave energy to the solder which seals the wound.  The antenna can be of many shapes that allow for contact or non-contact sealing of the wound.

This technique has several advantages over the currently experimental laser welding of wounds.
  1. It is small and portable, unlike bulky laser welding equipment that can't easily be transported between operating rooms or be used by EMTs or on the battle field.
  2. Microwave sealing is not as dependent on the uniformity and thickness of the protein solder application.
  3. The frequency of the microwave energy can be tuned depending on the depth of the wound as well as minimizing the area of effect of surrounding healthy tissue.
  4. Microwave energy may effectively kill bacteria thereby sterilizing the wound during the procedure, but this has yet to be validated.
I for one am always excited when I hear about less painful or invasive medical procedures.  I get down right giddy when I hear that it is engineers and scientists who get the credit for developing these life-saving techniques.

Next thing you know, Bones will be distributing pills to cure kidney disease.

(read the full article)

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Engineering Management - Ten Destructive Leadership Mistakes

As a recent engineer-turned-manager, coming across bits of information to remind myself that not all great engineers make great managers are always a welcome find.  And when those bits of information explicitly state guidelines to follow, I sit up and pay attention.

John Hamm wrote an article in the May 2011 edition of PE magazine (by NSPE).  In it, he lists the Ten Destructive Leadership Mistakes that organizational leaders make.  Although the mistakes are better expressed by example, I'd rather not plagiarize John's work and instead will only list them here.  Sadly, NSPE membership is required to read the article online.

Avoid These Mistakes
  1. "Role playing" authenticity rather than living it.
  2. Understanding the impact of small acts of dishonesty.
  3. Being two-faced (and assuming others won't notice).
  4. Squelching the flow of bad news.
  5. Punishing "good failures."
  6. Letting employee enthusiasm fizzle.
  7. Refusing to deal with your "weakest links."
  8. Allowing people to "fail elegantly."
  9. Delaying decisions until it's too late.
  10. Underestimating the weight of your words and moods.
Even if...
Even if you are not a manager, engineers are often leaders.  Just by our education and experience people look to us as decision makers.  We also tend to lead project teams or are champions of our designs.  Mistakes, such as the ten listed above, have a negative impact in those situations as well and care should be maintained in order to avoid them.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

A Hardware Store for Innovators

Do it yourselfers (DIY), or Makers as they are called now, are making a big impact on design and manufacturing.  Websites like Etsy allow you to take an idea and start selling it within hours.  No business start-up costs involved.  Other websites like Kickstarter allow you to get funding just by sharing a great idea.  And, it has the benefit of implying some initial marketing research on who and how many people are interested in your idea.

That's great, but where do people go to get supplies to make their ideas a reality?
They go to Inventables.


Inventables is the hardware store for innovation.  No longer are inventors forced to make a run to the local hardware store or Radio Shack (can you even buy electronic components at Radio Shack anymore) to build a mock-up of the product they really want to build.  Instead, they can get cutting edge, NASA grade materials to make their prototypes just like the real thing.  And some of these materials are simply amazing, the type of stuff that only a space agency could fund R&D for.

Words cannot describe the availability of rare and unique supplies available at Inventables just waiting to be used in the next great idea.  Pop on over, take a look, and let your creative juices flow.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Don't Tread on Me

It's Memorial Day.  This is the day I like to make a post a bit off topic and recognize all the war fighters, not only in the US, but all across the world, that risk their lives to protect our freedoms.  The last post I did was about the can-do attitude of the Seabees.  This year, I thought about stepping back to the very beginnings, back to the very first people who fought for our freedom even before there was a Memorial Day.

The Gadsden Flag
The Gadsden Flag, an American Timber Rattlesnake coiled up on a yellow background (also known as the Hopkins flag), is used by units in the U.S. Navy and U.S. Marine Corps, but it was originally created by Christopher Gadsden in 1775.

In 1775 the British were occupying Boston and General Washington was holed up in Cambridge, low on gunpowder and supplies shortly after the Battle of Bunker Hill.  The Continental Congress heard of a British transport on its way loaded with arms and gunpowder.  The rebels decided they needed the supplies more than the British and devised a plan to commandeer the transport.  The Continental Congress authorized the creation of the first Continental Navy and mustered five companies of Marines to take the ship.

Like all military groups at the time, battle drums were a part of the company.  Unique to some recruits from Pennsylvania, their drums were painted blaze yellow with a coiled rattlesnake, ready to strike, painted on it.  The rattlesnake had 13 rattles, one representing each colony.  Also painted on the drums were the words "Don't Tread on Me."

Why the Snake?
The snake actually started much sooner.  Benjamin Franklin, not keen on using an eagle -- "a bird of bad moral character" -- as a national emblem instead chose the snake.

In the Pennsylvania Journal (Pennsylvania Gazette), Franklin concocted an image of a segmented snake with the words "Join, or Die."  It played on superstitions at the time that if you reassembled a cut-up snake before sunset, it would come back to live.  It portrayed the unity that the colonies had to have.  The image was so popular that it became the symbol of shared national identity.

As Benjamin Franklin described it
 "She never begins an attack, nor, when once engaged, ever surrenders: She is therefore an emblem of magnanimity and true courage. ... she never wounds 'till she has generously given notice, even to her enemy, and cautioned him against the danger of treading on her."
Inevitably, the general serpent was replaced with an American Timber Rattler because of it's uniqueness to America.

Remarks
Our military has a long and proud history.  That history started even before the United States was a country, yet is still symbolized every day in current conflicts.  When we fly these colors, we not only represent our current values, but the values of all of those who have come before us.
Remember our past, those who have sacrificed, and why they chose to bear arms for our freedom.
Recognize our present, those who continue to sacrifice, and the proud heritage they represent.
Pray for our future, those that come after us respect us for our decisions and recognize the sacrifices we made were for them.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Now That's Skill

It's Memorial Weekend.  I've written my Memorial Day post and it will appear Monday morning.  But, while doing some semi-related research I came across this video.  This is a level of skill I think you will only ever find out of military trained pilots.

It is 0:57 long and a bit loud.  You may want to mute or turn down your speakers before playing.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Teaching Green - From Student to Professor

Amazing, simply amazing, what is possible when young individuals aren't told that they can't do something.  Reading through my alumni magazine, I come across an article where a Structural Engineering graduate helped implement green initiatives on campus.

MSOE already has a long history of environmental consciousness based on classes taught as well as physical installations of environmentally sound utilities.  Of course there was the standard trash and recycling containers all around campus.  But the efforts on campus were raised a notch when Jason Goike ('10) and the MSOE Recycling Team enhanced the program.  Why?  Because Goike was asked to and not told he couldn't.

First of all, Goike worked with MSOE's food service provider and switched from Styrofoam products to compostable corn- and sugarcane-based dinnerware.  That's right, you cups, plates, and bowls can be made out of compostable materials and organizations, like Growing Power in Milwaukee, WI, provide the composting service.  And instead of the standard two recycling bins: trash and recyclable, there are now three - the third being compostable.

But there is more to being green than additional recycling.  Remember the 3 R's?  Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.  Recycle is the last on the list.  The first is to reduce how much you use and the second is to reuse what you can.  Let's face it, people need to be motivated to do any of the 3 R's.  In order promote reuse, such as refillable water bottles and coffee mugs, the on-campus eateries offer discounts on refills.

MSOE lists some tangible savings from the program.
  • In 2009, MSOE spent more than $110,000 to remove unsorted waste.  With the new recycling bins, MSOE expects to save $20,000 through reduced trash pick ups.
  • The compostable dinnerware could save an additional $15,000 by diverting trash to Growing Power instead of the landfill.

The EPA has some interesting facts on recycling.  I'm still trying to quantity these facts because they leave out some very important metrics.
  • Recycling one aluminum can saves enough energy to burn a 100-watt light bulb for four hours or to run your tv for three.
  • Recycling white paper in your office from one year can save almost 26 gallons of oil, 273 kilowatt-hours of energy, 467 gallons of water, and more than one tree.  It also prevents four pounds of air pollution from entering the atmosphere.
  • Composting keeps carbon from entering the atmosphere as a greenhouse gas and diverts waste from landfills.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Big Steam - An Icon of Sustainability

With all the recent talk about sustainability and designed obsolescence, engineers and industry gurus are taking pages from history on how to design products that last for generations.  (When was the last time your kids were happy to inherit your cell phone?)  I actually have in my possession my grandfather's pocket watches, the wind up kind, and they still work.  Talk about sustainable; it's a design with craftsmanship that has lasted two generations and with proper care, will last many more.  One watch is plain for everyday use and other is quite intricate in detail for those special occasions.  Plus, it is carbon neutral to operate.

Now, not exactly carbon neutral to operate but long living none-the-less is steam engines.  Beyond the childhood fantasies of days gone by, there is just something alluring about steam trains.  The Grand Canyon Railway rebuilds, maintains, and operates a route from Williams, AZ to the Grand Canyon using steam.  I have always told my wife that when I retire, I hope to work there helping refurbish old steam engines and cars.  I would do it for a living, but the problem is that a LOT of people want to do that.  High supply/low demand means you can't exactly make a living doing what you love.

But "The Train" isn't the only place restoring Big Steam.  There is a place in Bugs Bunny's favorite city, Albuquerque, NM, that has a team of dedicated volunteers putting a rare locomotive back into action.  The New Mexico Steam Locomotive & Railroad Historical Society is restoring one of the largest and most powerful steam locomotives ever built - one million pounds (1,000,000 lbs) of iron and steel generating 4,500 hp.  The boiler of this beast is twenty feet long and 7 1/2 feet in diameter.  The operating pressure is 300 psi at 700 degrees F powering two double-acting pistons that turns eight 80-inch diameter drive wheels.  The SA 516 grade 55 steel is only 7/16 to 1 1/4 inch thick in the boiler.  Oh, and the firebox is the size of a small bedroom at 9 X 12 feet.

What historic train has these stats?  It is locomotive No. 2926 from the Baldwin Locomotive Works built in 1944 for the Atchison, Topica, and Sante Fe line between Chicago and Los Angeles.  The train was retired from service in 1954 and has sat idle in an Albuquerque park since then along with its tender.  The team of volunteers restoring this beauty consist of: retired mechanical engineers, nuclear engineers, civil engineers, medical doctors, chemists, police officers, cryptoanalysts, machinists, ex-Navy officers, and national science lab veterans.  (But like I said, these are retired volunteers so highly unlikely this fun work will ever pay your mortgage.)

When the restoration is complete and all safety checks have been passed, this engine will roll out under its own power.  The restoration should be complete sometime in 2012.  You can learn about the entire project by viewing the AT&SF website dedicated to the project

Thursday, April 28, 2011

I was at COFES, too

If you haven't gotten enough of COFES during the weekend of the event, or if you haven't gotten enough COFES with all the updates and blog posts shortly after the event, then you surely must have been waiting for my perspective.

Most of my readers are probably aware of The Congress on the Future of Engineering Software that occurs annually over an April weekend in sunny Scottsdale, AZ at the Scottsdale Plaza Resort (not the Scottsdale Resort like some shuttle drivers would insist) and hosted by Cyon Research.  If you are not familiar with the event, I highly recommend you visit their website and save me the trouble of name dropping.  I am probably one of the unique few that attend this event that is not a software vendor, component supplier, industry analyst, hardware OEM, or media.  Even though I blog about CAD and engineering, during the event I represent my employer as a user.  So while some people are there to gauge the industry or take pictures for interesting articles, I'm there to gauge where my business critical applications are heading and figure out how to position my company to best prepare for and utilize the future of engineering software.

This was my second year attending COFES.  Last year I knew a few people and got some great advice on how to get the most from COFES.  This year, I was actually able to put that advice into practice and my head is still pounding with the wealth of information I took home from the event.  Writing down four jam-packed days of information into a trip report or blog post just doesn't do justice to what actually happens at COFES, but I'm going to try anyway.

DaS Symposium
Even before COFES officially starts, there are events.  The big event that most interests me is the Design and Sustainability (DaS) Symposium.  The key takeaway from last years Symposium was the creation of the Green Keystone Alliance (GKA) containing participants of the Symposium like Sustainable Minds, Ford, and partnerships with NIBS. The purpose of the GKA is to be a central advisory panel to all of the other organizations that are trying to define sustainability. The presentations were about creating long lasting products, getting rid of designed obsolescence (like needing a new cell phone every 2 years or less), planning for the entire life cycle of a product including disposal, and creating products that use less raw materials. But, none of these concepts were able to put an economic model together. They were not able to answer the question on how companies can stay in business if they are not selling new products. Is the market (even in a non-recession) willing to pay 3 or 4 times what they pay now for a cell phone? The Symposium did, though, try to make an argument for putting “green” as part of the accounting value statement. Software vendors are trying to collect data on all environmental costs associated with a product: mining, growing, shipping, processing, packaging, all the things that use energy before the end item is actually shipped, and then how much energy is needed to dispose of said product. A new science termed LCA (Life Cycle Assessment) is being employed in many industries to try to capture this data and put a value to it. I wouldn’t be surprised if graduates start appearing with LCA degrees.

Computer Interfaces
The mouse and keyboard are dead. The physical keyboard and mouse are being replaced by virtual keyboards (like on the iPad) and visual tracking like used by the Xbox Kinect. Because of new technology like Kinect, typing in mid-air is possible on a virtual keyboard. The intelligence of auto correct is getting better (in theory at least) so typos are not a huge concern. The point here is because this change affects the physical layout of offices. Monitors will be replaced with touch screens and cameras will be everywhere.  What does that mean for the security of your work environment?

The "Cloud"
What discussion about the future of engineering software is complete without mentioned the word CLOUD?  I don't know about you, but I'm as tired hearing about this nebulous philosophy as I am hearing about green washing.  In my opinion, internet based cloud is not something I would like but knowing that computer hardware technology is also taking a chapter out of history I'm a bit more optomistic. Distributed desktop workstations are going the way of the dodo and being replaced with thin clients. Compute power is more scalable at the server level now rather than the desktop level. Running applications from the server and pushing the input and feedback across the network results in better performance than buying a faster workstation CPU or better graphics card. Compression technology makes this possible without maxing out bandwidth. Maintaining software is easier because there is only one installation to update (on the server). Performance is easier to track and when it lags, easier and cheaper to improve because only the server needs a hardware upgrade. AMD gave a great presentation on what they have available on the market today that already does this with HP hardware. And, unlike another cloud demo, AMD’s didn’t blow up because it was on local hardware, not on some amorphous server farm somewhere in the world that depended on an internet connection. But, that brings me to my second point. Microsoft is pushing their “cloud” solutions via the Azure platform. Microsoft may be the creating the new Windows killer OS. Are we ready for that infrastructure change? Just upgrading to Windows 7 is met with resistance in some corporations and industries.

Systems Modeling
One my more enjoyable aspects of COFES is the small group discussions.  I attended one hosted by Allen Behrens of Taxal Limited.  The discussion was about how modeling of physical systems is growing with each advance in computing power. No longer is a single FEA sufficient. All simulations require multi-physics. One step beyond mult-physics is systems modeling, where the results from a vibration and braking analysis in an automobile are used as inputs to the suspension system and then the suspension system design is used again in the vibration and braking analysis (and design). These are very complex interactions and very complex systems to model. The only way to model them is with mathematics (the partial differential equations kind of math). Matlab with Simulink kind of does this; Simulia kind of does this; Labview kind of does this. The solution to the problem of systems modeling is creating a library of domain-specific functions so each engineer doesn’t have to reinvent the math (aka wheel) for each analysis. Modelica is a solution provider trying to do just that in an open environment. This is a software tool that is definitely worth watching.

Conclusion
If you can't attend COFES, at least try to keep up with the tweets, blog posts, and other media in order to find out what happens there.  Not all of COFES will apply to you, but what does apply is undoubtedly beneficial for future proofing your organization.  There are more topics discussed at COFES that I hope to blog about specifically in the near future.

Links to more COFES 2011 info:
twitter hashtag #cofes2011
Siemens PLM Blog
Solidsmack.com post

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Announcement: Moving Domains

No, not this domain.  For the time being I do plan on keeping this blogger site just the way it is.  I moved my personal business domain.

When I started the business, and the domain, my preferred .com domain was not available and I really liked the option of the .pro domain.  The problem was that you were required to get a third level domain (.eng.pro) before you could reserve the second level domain (.pro).  The third level domain is very expensive.  For one, the registrar verifies that you really are a licensed professional.  Also, the third level domain came with some nice benefits, like free SSL certificates.  And, I got a discount on the domain through professional societies.

Well, those discounts have disappeared and the SSL certificate no longer comes with the domain.  All I'm getting now is a really expensive domain name.  Recent changes to the .pro registration policy allows for professionals to self-certify second level domains.  That means we can have the second level domain without a third level domain.  So that's what I'm doing.

wertel.eng.pro is set to expire.
wertel.pro is my new domain.
My personal business email address also has the new domain (remove the .eng from the existing email address).

Please be sure to update your contact info you have my personal business email address and feel free to stop by the new domain and check out the website.  New content forthcoming.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

The Next Asbestos

Thinking back about posts I made regarding taking shortcuts or letting your critical thinking skills take a back seat, I've come to the realization that engineers are letting social pressures determine right from wrong more so than ethics and morals.  This is a disturbing trend if true.  Maybe it is due to the incredibly good job engineers do of making it look easy that the lack of prestige is making us lax in our profession.  I hinted that engineers are letting others define their abilities based on "requirements" to follow standards instead of using their own aptitudes to design a safe, reliable solution.

But in the context of those posts that were referring to GREEN standards, I thought of a possible shortcoming based on our own shortsightedness.  It is not a problem we can resolve, it is only human nature, and therefore deserves some discussion.

Lung Tissue with Asbestos Tumors
Historical Perspective
Consider an engineer or architect in the late 19th century.  The customer is demanding better efficiency and lower cost of ownership.  You, the engineer, look up the equivalent of matweb for a material that is inexpensive but has great sound proofing; suitable strength; and resistance to heat, electrical, and chemical damage.  You come across this cutting edge additive called asbestos.  It's naturally occurring, so it must have limited health risks.  It can be mixed with cement for structural applications.  It can be woven into fabric for wrapping pipes or hanging sheets.  It can be cast or processed into ceiling tiles, floor tiles, and even shingles.  This is a magical multipurpose material.  It is not until decades later that we realize the harm asbestos can do to lung tissue.

And now we live in a similar age.

Space Age Additives
I'm that engineer.  When I bought the house I'm currently living in, I really needed to repaint some of the rooms.  I heard about this nanoscale ceramic bead paint additive used by NASA to help insulate the space station.  It was reasonably affordable and would save me plenty of money in my energy bills, especially in the hot Arizona summer.

I bought some in bulk and mixed it in with the paint.  I even put it in the paint I was using for the ceiling, since that surface was adjacent to the attic and a large source of heat transfer.  Painting the inside of the house in August, I could literally feel a difference (when painting the ceiling) between the areas I had painted and the areas left to paint.  The areas coated with the additive were noticeably cooler.  When I get my comparison statement from the electric company, my energy usage is always significantly lower than the average home my size.  Although my family makes a very conscious effort to minimize our usage, I am from Wisconsin and don't take well to the heat, so there are times when we don't necessarily conserve as much as others.  Therefore, conservation can't be the only reason my energy rates remain below average.  But, since I painted the house right when I moved in, I don't have any numbers of the house prior to painting to know for certain.

None the less, my house is 10 years old and due for a fresh coat of paint on the outside.  I have every intention of using this additive again.  Afterall, with that level of savings from only a few rooms painted, imagine the savings with the entire house painted.  Not to mention, the additive is only 30% efficient insulating conductive heat transfer (inside walls).  It is 90% efficient at insulating radiative heat transfer (outside walls).

The Downside
Much like asbestos, there is reason to believe that these nano technologies may pose a serious long term health risk.  It is well known that benign materials take on unhealthy side effects when made smaller (and more easily absorbed into the body).  Although the additive I used is completely neutral when in the paint, there are warnings on the packaging about not breathing it in raw form.  So then, what about when he house gets remodeled.  Or what about when a microburst takes out a piece of the house.  Either way, someone will have to clean up the mess - a mess that may contain exposed nanomaterial.  Does my house all of a sudden turn into a hazardous waste site?  Am I responsible for remediation?

Much like asbestos in the late 19th century, it is too early to tell.  With the information and knowledge we currently have, there is no risk and the savings (monetarily and environmentally) is too great to pass up.  Perhaps in the future we'll know more and can make a better informed decision.  For the time being, this engineer is going to use his own brain and not wait for the government to develop a standard on its use.  The benefits out way the risks.

Concluding Remarks
These are the types of decisions we get paid for.  Engineers are supposed to use their education and experience to make decisions just like this.  We rarely have all the information.  Use of good judgement is required to fill in the blanks to make the best decision at the time.  Why delay the benefits of new technology while some administrative board determines policy?

Monday, February 21, 2011

Engineers Week 2011

It's that time of year again.  When all the engineers gather around their favorite Irish Pub and drink green beer in honor of their patron saint.  Oh wait, that's not for another few weeks yet.  That's right, IT'S ENGINEERS WEEK!

I am interested in hearing all the ways that YOU are celebrating Engineers Week.  Yours truly was inspired by another social media friend to answer a few Q&A for her regarding engineering.  You can read the start of my interview here (and get a great snapshot of my mug, too).

And my heart goes out to all my soon to be fellow alumni who are enjoying finals week this week instead of partying like an Irishman.  Oh wait, they are because IT'S FINALS WEEK.

Be sure to check out all the eweek events in your area and let us know what's going on your neck of the woods.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Concurrent CFD

An article by Dr. Keith Hanna of Mentor Graphics Corp. appearing in Defense Tech Briefs and repeated in other publications describes a method of performing concurrent Computation Fluid Dynamic (CFD) in conventional MCAD tools.

Last year I wrote a post on how the design process needs to be turned upside down.  In it, I made some recommendations on how the integration of analysis tools into MCAD packages may not be the right way to move forward.  Although Dr. Hanna makes a good argument for streamlining the analysis process and saving countless hours of development time, in my opinion it fails to solve the problem and in fact, may make it worse.
"Concurrent CFD automates tedious/intimidating steps such as configuring  solid representations of hollow spaces, designing meshes, and more." 
That's great, for an analyst.  But what this is in fact doing to taking the analyst out of the loop.  Now that the part of the solution that requires expertise has been dumbed down simplified to the point where anyone can set up a model for analysis, the unqualified designer is going to do it.  Why? Because it is a quicker and cheaper process than involving the analyst.  This is simply wrong!  What I foresee happening is that the experienced structural engineer who is very good at designing hardware and designing for manufacturability will now feel compelled to also perform fluid analysis.  As engineers, we have a duty to only perform within our area of expertise, and taking two fluid dynamics classes in college does not exactly qualify us as experts.  Yet, the tools are so easy to use and are built right into the software I'm proficient at, why not give it a try?  What could be the harm?

If you are a fluids expert and happen to also be proficient at MCAD, integrated tools like these are a godsend.  They save time and money on development programs.  They turn tedious manual chores into automated solutions while adding a level of accuracy that may be missed during manual setup.  I can see how it is easy to be enticed by these benefits of integrated solutions.  But it is the job of the engineer to look past the shiny marketing and THINK about the details.  What is it you are really buying and is it the right tool for the job?  Think about it, and while you're at it, check out Mentor Graphics.  It may just be the tool you have been looking for.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Have Engineers Lost Decision Making Abilities?

Speaking of skimming, I recently sorted through my stack of trade journals throwing out ones so old that the time sensitive information would no longer be of value, and thumbing through the middle aged magazines skimming the contents.

During this skimming I glanced at an article about the use of nanomaterials in construction.  Reading only a sentence or two from each paragraph, I quickly started getting a message from the article that I'm sure the author did not mean to give.  Skimming caused me to take the passages out of context, and therefore apply a new meaning.  Here's what I read.
As engineers incorporate more nanomaterials into contruction blocks, cement, and paint, regulators must begin controlling these materials.
They also discuss the possible hazards and lack of regulation.
This lack of oversight means more research is necessary to avoid unintended consequences.
The key is to understand the specific risks and implications of the product before it is widely used.
Was this author seriously stating that engineers are incapable of running their own studies and determining the cost/benefit analysis of utilizing new materials without interceding regulations?  Was the author really stating that the use of these materials should not be continued until they have been regulated?  I was astounded.  Reading the entire article instead of just skimming it, the purpose of the article becomes more clear.  The author states that the entire life cycle of the new materials needs to be considered before using it in construction.  The best way to do so, so everyone is not required to run their own analysis, is by creating codes and standards which inevitably means regulating their use.

But then I turn the page and there is an article about green construction code.  In it, the author states the benefits of being forced into aligning to a universal standard instead of allowing engineers and architects to use their own senses to design the most economical and environmentally-friendly buildings.  Throw away all the work done by LEED and ASHRAE.   Don't allow engineers to use their critical thinking skills to develop eloquent solutions to problems.  No!  Force engineers to design to code.  Remove all traces of free thinking.  And regulate the life out of a new industry before it even has a chance to mature and take shape.

I haven't read the code.  It may be as beneficial to the industry and the well-being of the general public as the author states.  But from skimming the article, I see yet another means to remove engineers from their jobs and replace them with a cookie cutter method of design that anyone with a 6th grade reading level can perform.  Do engineers really want to become nothing more than code consumers?  Maybe I should stop skimming.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Skimming

I have been enjoying the luxury of sitting in training seminars lately.  I love learning, and the fact that the topics are aligned with my current job description allows me to apply my new found knowledge immediately.  It's not that I don't enjoy sitting in an uncomfortable chair in a hotel conference room for eight hours a day.  No!  It's that the instructors try to teach more than the curriculum.  One particular instructor, in an attempt to sell us on taking other courses from this training group, kept advertising his ability to speed read and how taking this other course will HELP YOU TOO.

As an engineer, there is a specific time to skim and a specific time to read every word.  For example, the difference between "shall" and "may" in a specification or statement of work could cost you millions of dollars through failure to understand the requirements.  Sure, you skimmed them, and got the gist of the idea, but you failed to realize the difference between a recommendation from a requirement, and that's what cost you.  (This particular instructor was not too fond of me stealing his sales potential by questioning that point publicly.)

None the less, skimming is a great time saver when used properly and we are cognizant when it can fail.  Taking the time to do the job right should be every engineer's motto.  Increasing your reading skills is great, but don't take shortcuts when public safety and well-being is on the line.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

The Mind of an Engineer

A young coworker of mine was married last summer.  Although he is at the stage in his marriage where he is probably still running into the bathroom and closing the door to fart rather than holding his wife's head under the covers, he has noticed that his wife didn't really understand exactly what it was going to be like being married to an engineer.  It was at that moment I realized that young engineers need mentoring not only in their technical careers, but that they - and their spouses - need mentoring on what life is like for an engineer in the outside world as well.

There was an article in NSPE's magazine that had a great example of the mind of an engineer.  I can't find it now, so I will have to explain it in my own words.  (If anyone remembers the article, author, and has a link for it, please include it in the comments so I can give proper recognition.)

Enter The Parking Lot
When a "normal" person enters a parking lot, the one thing that enters their head is "Oh, there's an open spot." and they pull right in.  If that spot happens to be close to the entrance to the building, all the better.

When an engineer enters the same parking lot, they:
  • Remember if the parking lot is one-way aisles with angled parking or 2-way aisles with straight slots, and any unique lanes to the pattern.
  • Determine the flow of traffic based on said parking lot layout.
  • Determine where the gridlock will be, knowing full well someone will wait 20 minutes for a person exiting the grocery store to unload their cart and return it to the corral in order to get that close parking spot.
  • Determine a search pattern to find an open spot while avoiding that gridlock lane from above.
  • Determine pedestrian traffic routes to and from the parking lot to the front door, all to avoid the extra safety issue of inconsiderate pedestrians that walk down the middle of the lane.
  • Determine the best possible egress route in order to avoid all the above obstacles while providing the most efficient means to reenter the regular traffic flow, be it road, stop signs, or other thoroughfares.  That also means how are they going to get out of the parking spot.  Should they back in, pull in, or pull through in order to make egress easier?  This, of course, is all based on the vehicle being driven, its blind spots, driver comfort, mirror adjustments, agility, acceleration, braking, turning radius, etc.
  • The weather.  Not just sunny, cloudy, windy, raining, snowy, or warm.  They will actually look at the thermometer in the car and recall the morning's weather report for any significant events that may happen between now and the time they plan on leaving the building.
  • Oh yes, all of that has been determined, too.  How long this errand will take.  Where in the store the items required are located.  How long to allow the spouse to browse all while still moving towards the primary goal of finishing the errand and returning home.
  • Then apply a weighted coefficient to all of those variables and calculate the best possible parking location, which may not be close to the entrance to the building to the befuddlement of the other passengers in the vehicle as to why the engineer-driver passed up that close spot for a two block walk.
And, they will do this all within that split second of first pulling into the parking lot.  That, spouses, is the mind of the person you married.  Seriously.  Ask them if, when entering a parking lot, they only look for a close spot or consider other options when finding a parking spot.

Enter the Grocery Store
I came across another example as well.  My wife and I were shopping at our local fruit and vegetable market.  (Thankfully, the parking lot is pretty small.)  After completing the shopping list, we unloaded our groceries onto the checkout conveyor -- which of course, in the split second of approaching the checkout area I calculated the most efficient lane to enter.  At that moment, I made the comment of "Worst check stand ever."

I got a weird look from the clerk and my wife posed the question "Why would say that?" in that voice that really means "You are such an ass right now. You better apologize immediately."

It so happened that it was quite the blustery day that day, and chilly, especially for Arizona standards.  The check stand also happened to be located right at the exit, so every time somebody walked past, the automatic door would open and the wind would whip through check stand.  Standing there, you would get this periodic chill and light articles on the check stand would blow around.  It was really quite annoying.

I answered my wife, "Because it's cold outside and when the door opens the wind blows everything around."

Apparently, this answer not only clarified my statement but also sufficed as an apology because the furrow in the clerk's brow relaxed and she was no longer bruising all of our produce with the amazing death grip of hers.  (No worries, I was going to dice up those tomatoes that night.)  The clerk even responded with some pleasantries as to how she wished she would have brought a jacket into work that day in addition to a sweater, not realizing that she was going to be stationed at the worst check stand ever.

Upon leaving the parking lot, my wife just couldn't let that episode go.
Wife: I still can't believe you said that.
Me: Said what?
Wife: That the checkout lady was really bad.
Me: I never said that.  I said it was the worst check STAND ever. I never said anything about it being the worst check CLERK ever.  I was very clear about what I was referring.
At that moment, my wife just sighed, recalling yet again what it is like being married to an engineer.